To be honest, over the past few years I’ve gotten a bit lazy. In fact, I’ve always been lazy. That might not make much sense to those of you who know me as the guy who has worked 60-80 hr work weeks for the past four years while not taking a paycheck, but trust me, I’m lazy. But I’m breaking out of it. It’s been in the works for a while, one of those things you feel coming on but which you’re not sure you’re looking forward to. I was going to make an analogy about my favorite food here, namely burritos, but why get crass.
There have been a few catalysts over the past month that have finally started me on the journey of emerging from my cocoon of laziness and half-measures. The first was a conversation my wife and I had while driving down to California to visit my parents for Christmas. The second was having my application to Harvard Business School rejected. There have been a number of other, smaller events, one of which was an exchange I recently had with Jason Fried, founder of 37signals, a company that has created my favorite piece of software dubbed Basecamp.
Over the past several months we at MWI have been working on a slightly-less-than-top-secret project. Without going into too much detail, it’s a project management system specifically designed to facilitate providing search engine optimization services to clients. Basecamp is a project management system primarily designed for use by web designers, graphic designers, and web programmers, although it could be used by a host of other people in all sorts of situations. We use Basecamp extensively at MWI for managing our relationships with clients, and so you might ask why we are building a project management system from scratch to manage SEO instead of using Basecamp. The answer is that Basecamp, while wonderful, only provides a fraction of the functionality we need. Our system is also going to include billing, analytics, reporting, and a host of other things that Basecamp doesn’t even touch on, nor do I think they intend to. There are also plenty of features in Basecamp that we don’t need. In a nutshell, Basecamp provides about 25% of what we need, but even the way it’s provided isn’t ideal for us, so in reality Basecamp isn’t anywhere close to a workable solution for us.
The challenge for me has come while doing the design of our system. Because I have used Basecamp for hours every day for almost two years, I have been ingrained with their philosophy about what a project management system should work and look like. When I started working on our system design it seemed impossible to not incorporate a bit of Basecamp here, a bit of Basecamp there, because I simply couldn’t imagine how to do things differently, and because, as I mentioned, I’m lazy.
So the screens of the system looked a bit like Basecamp. Ah heck, it looked a lot like Basecamp. As far as the functional parts went, while most of it was nothing like Basecamp, parts of it were virtually identical. I would say that about 25% of our system was looking and working an awful lot like Basecamp.
At this point I started getting concerned, so I did exactly what my lawyers, if I had any, would advise me not to do, which is that I contacted Jason Fried and essentially told him that I was having problems not copying his system, and what would he recommend? I was expecting Jason, a fellow entrepreneur with a shared background in web development, to kindly give me some tips and advice and perhaps share similar experiences he had while building Basecamp. After all, none of us lives on an island and I assume there are parts of Basecamp that were inspired by things he saw on other websites. In addition, I’m a pretty easy-going guy. MWI’s website has been ripped off several times but I’ve never made a deal out of it, I just find it entertaining. If I build a system and somebody reverse-engineers it I don’t care that much. Now if they were to copy it and then try to put me out of business that’s another thing, but that wasn’t the case here. We’re only using the system for our own use as opposed to selling it to other SEO types for them to use, plus it’s for a use that Basecamp isn’t designed to handle. With that as background, I was thinking Jason would be a kindred spirit, and so I was taken off-guard when the response I got from Jason was quite different than what I expected.
It was what I should have expected from a seasoned businessman as opposed to a techie, open-source advocate. While it didn’t say this in so many words, the gist of it was “Basecamp is our intellectual property and if you copy the smallest part of it you’ll be attacked by a band of high-priced lawyers.” At first I was shocked, then scared. I wrote a return email telling him that I had no ill intent and was simply looking for advice from someone I look up to, and that I really wanted to learn something. My opinion was that while there were many parts of my system that looked like his, I wasn’t sure they were parts that could be considered intellectual property. After all, nobody has a copyright on a web form, tabbed navigation, checkboxes, or project management. The IP is the specific arrangement of hundreds of different web elements, not the elements themselves. But I didn’t get a response. I was still scared, and now I was a bit angry and dissappointed, feeling like Jason was actually something of a jerk. I felt like I had been attacked.
But I never get very angry at anyone, and whenever I’m offended by someone the first thing I do after recovering is to try to put myself in their shoes. Well, to be honest, if I were in Jason’s shoes I still wouldn’t have reacted the way he did, but I can understand his stance. He’s protecting himself. But although I wasn’t angry or offended anymore, I was still afraid of the possibility of an impending lawsuit. After all, I had just sent this guy an email telling him I was essentially copying parts of his system.
So what was I to do? Well, I decided to take Jason’s advice, which was “There are thousands of ways to say the same thing and there are thousands of ways to build software or an interface or a feature. It’s important that you find your own way otherwise you may be putting yourself at legal risk.” Before, I hadn’t seen the point in reinventing the wheel, simply to make it different, but once I was forced into the position by my own doing, something interesting happened. Not only did the system changes, but as I have worked on the new screens I have found myself thinking “Man, this is much better than what we had before.” Not only has redesigning everything made the whole website and system a lot more aesthetically pleasing, the way it functions will meet our needs and the needs of our customers much better as well. Whereas a few weeks ago I thought Jason was my nemesis, now I’m thankful he said “no” rather than “sure, take whatever you need.” If he had been less stern about the whole thing our system would be nowhere as good as what it is turning out to be.
So what’s the lesson kids? Ask for advice, and be humble enough to seriously consider it even if you don’t like it or don’t like the manner in which it’s given. And get up off the couch and stop being lazy. Trust me, things will be better if you do.Liked it? Share it!
Great post, Josh. I’ve struggled with this very same thing as a designer, architect, and developer. There’s a lot of grey area out there when it comes to leveraging standards without infringing on other’s IP.
I’m glad “No” turned into the impetus for being better than just a copy of someone else’s work.
Regarding sounding like a jerk, I’m sorry if I came off that way. From my perspective you were the one that sounded like a jerk. “Hi, I like you work and I want to make it mine. Ok?” is how it reads when someone asks if they can copy you. I know you aren’t a jerk, I just wanted you to understand how it sounds when someone wants to take 4 years of your blood sweat and tears and call it their own. Even though it sounds respectful (“I like your work”) it’s actually quite disrespectful (“l’ll just take your work so I don’t have to do my own”).
Anyway, I’m glad everything worked out for the better. Best success with your product — releasing your own product is a real thrill!
Well, I guess we’re even and hopefully no hard feelings on either side. Once we’ve got the thing in beta I’ll let you know in case you want to check it out and tell us if you think any of it still comes uncomfortably close to Basecamp.